How should tire dealers cope with abusive customers? According to one savvy service manager, the only way is to show them the door as politely and quickly as possible. The longer service personnel tolerate verbal abuse, the less likely they are to control and guide the discussion toward an agreeable solution, he emphasized. Thankfully, abusive customers are a small minority of those you deal with daily. But the aggravation the vocal minority causes makes a majority-style impact on your staff's collective psyche and confidence.
Many of us were trained to maintain control of the situation by controlling our tempers. We were also taught to reason with screaming lunatics the way Dr. Benjamin Spock urged Baby Boomers to reason with unruly children.
However, a sharp service manager I've worked with in Omaha, Neb., says that sparing the rod only spoils abusive customers. Experience has taught him that the only way to gain control is silencing the abuse first. This manager is convinced that when people don't promptly heed his warnings to stop cursing and/or screaming, the best use of his time is to end the conversation. Immediately.
When an abusive customer is on the phone, this man hangs up. When a troublesome customer is in front of him, he opens the store's door and firmly but calmly asks the person to leave. No further discussions occur until the customer has calmed down, he said.
Granted, this seemingly abrupt approach may not fit every service staffer's personal style. But over the years, this manager unconsciously cultivated the approach precisely because it suits him so well and gets results.
Why? Although he's very successful dealing with typical customers, he has little-to-no patience with unreasonable people. He's found he's got to gain control of the situation quickly or he'll lose his temper. Drawn-out exchanges give the consumer an edge he's not anxious to forfeit.
He also said losing his temper is more likely than this quick-and-direct approach to cost the store a customer.
Second, experience taught this manager that customers who scream and swear at service personnel usually do so for very predictable reasons. For example, at some point they found they could intimidate retailers into doing anything they wanted simply by ranting and raving at them. They learned yelling and cursing often got them much more than they actually were entitled to!
People also scream to take the offensive and mask basic fears and insecurities. Typically, the abusive customer is neither prepared for nor accustomed to service personnel who keep their cool and stand their ground.
The classic abusers don't have a Plan B ready, so encountering an unflinching service manager puts them back on the defensive again. With no alternative plan, they must either cooperate or go fish, the Omaha manager stressed.
Unless you quickly turn the tables on an abuser, you aren't likely to steer the discussion toward a solution soon—if ever, he added.
The service manager recalled when a cash-strapped fellow insisted he replace a damaged engine with one from a salvage yard. The manager explained verbally and in writing that he wouldn't guarantee any salvage-yard engine, but the customer insisted he install one anyway.
After several weeks in service, the used engine began leaking coolant from a core plug in the side of the block. When the owner phoned the service manager, the verbal abuse pouring out of the receiver turned the air blue. When the manager hung up, the customer immediately called back, enraged that someone hung up on him.
``I told him that until he learned how to speak civilly to me, I'd continue hanging up on him,'' the service manager explained. ``I hung up on him three times before he took the hint. When he showed up, he was the picture of politeness. We replaced the leaking core plug, charged him the routine price and he paid it.''
Another time, a customer berated a service writer over road-hazard damage to his tires. When the guy failed to calm down, the manager held the front door open and asked the fellow to leave.
``The guy bellowed he couldn't believe I was throwing him out. I calmly kept repeating that I wasn't throwing him out. I was asking him to leave until he adjusted his attitude accordingly. Everyone—employees as well as other customers—could hear what I said and see that I wasn't laying a hand on this guy,'' he said.
After the screamer left (he never came back), every customer in the waiting room complimented the service staff's grace under pressure. Some even commented that the store didn't need ``that kind'' of clientele anyway!